Unpleasant rumours begin to spread that her family is cursed. Despite the best efforts of neighbour Mrs. Tafa and the more dubious intentions of an untrustworthy clinician and a local witchdoctor, Chanda's mother leaves the family and heads deep into the countryside. With the help of best friend Esther, a defiant and headstrong Chanda sets off to find her mother and put right the wrongs set by her superstitious community.
‘Life, Above All’ is about Chanda (Khomotso Manyaka), a 12-year-old who becomes the breadwinner of her household. We see her given the task to pick the coffin of her dead baby sister, and then we meet her ill mother and drunkard father. In their small town in Johannesburg, AIDS is prevalent and people drop like flies from it, but they don’t say it out loud. To them, AIDS is just ‘the bug’.
As we follow Chanda through her poverty-stricken town, we see trash strewn everywhere, part of the landscape, her neighbors who would rather kill her with gossip than help her, and her best friend Esther (Keaobaka Makanyane), who lives alone in a shack, orphaned by her parents from AIDS and left behind by her siblings. Chanda and Esther have no one except each other and in ‘Life, Above All’, their bond is stronger than family.
‘Life, Above All’ is directed by Oliver Schmitz and based on the novel ‘Chanda’s Secrets’ by Allan Stratton who adapted it to the screen with Dennis Foon. The focus of both the novel and film is Chanda and in particular, on the big screen, her eyes. They say so much; no trace of innocence here but there’s hope, somewhat.
The stoic stance that first-timer Khomotso Manyaka makes the film even more heartbreaking and alarming. ‘Life, Above All’ is wonderfully photographed by Bernhard Jasper, who aptly catches the beauty of faces and the solitude of their misfortunes. ‘Life, Above All’ was South Africa’s entry to the 83rd Oscars for Best Foreign Language Film.
The portent villain of ‘Life, Above All’ is AIDS but beneath the surface, the real villains are ignorance and poverty. Illiterate and superstitious, the people of Johannesburg are also the cause of their ruin. In a land where AIDS takes more lives by the thousands, they remain unaware of how to prevent it or maybe, even refuse to. Even when one of them is stricken, help will not be given; instead the diseased will be vilified and cast out. If you choose not to help yourself, who in turn will?